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The biggest crime gangs in the world

The biggest crime gangs in the world
Image: Unsplash Images

In previous articles here at Crime+Investigation, we’ve explored the murky business of some of the biggest gangs in Britain and, further afield, in Europe. We discovered that organised crime is often a far-reaching and insidious thing, that - while mostly kept rather quiet - can be an enormous business. Just how big is difficult to truly ever know, but it’s believed that more than a TRILLION POUNDS gets laundered by organised crime across the globe each and every year.

With that kind of money being made and cleaned, you’ve got to imagine that there are plenty of law-breaking organisations out there. You’d be right too. Around the world, tens of thousands of organised crime gangs exist, exporting/importing and selling drugs, committing armed robberies, defrauding people and businesses, racketeering, counterfeiting, committing cybercrime…

Worldwide, the number of such groups is extraordinarily high. Most are smaller outfits - albeit coordinated and well drilled. The real money, however, is made by just a handful of criminal enterprises. Organisations so big they span countries and even continents.

Let’s take a look at some of the largest criminal syndicates currently operating out there. Starting with the biggest…

Bratva AKA The Russian Mafia

‘Bratva’ means ‘brotherhood’ in Russian, with the word mostly now used in the context of crime. Essentially, the Russian Mafia is so huge because it’s an interconnected network of thousands of smaller gangs. It’s a loose structure, not like how, say, the Cosa Nostra operates. The hierarchies of the smaller internal groups can be fairly rigid, but there’s no wider hierarchy of gangs and no overseeing ‘Boss of Bosses’.

The Russian Mafia work in drugs, fraud, arms dealing, sex/human trafficking, extortion, illegal gambling, prostitution… you name it. If it’s against the law and makes money, the Bratva will have a tattooed finger in it.

Given their nationality, they work primarily out of Russia and the former Soviet Bloc countries. But their sheer numbers and political influence in Mother Russia allows them to operate abroad, mostly in western Europe and the United States.

Estimated number of members: 300,000+

The Triads

Much like the Russian Mafia, the Triads aren’t one enormous criminal enterprise. They’re a vast network of groups that operate out of China, Hong Kong and internationally. They’re often connected in complicated ways and work alongside - or even sometimes against - one another. This labyrinthine and fluid-structure doesn’t make life easy for law enforcement to unpick.

Triads’ control is far-reaching. Their tentacles spread across the world, with conservative estimates claiming that this loose collection of gangs accounts for some 15% of the world’s heroin supply (in Australia it’s a whopping 90%).

This loosely-constructed Chinese Mafia has its roots in some of the secret societies which sprang up across China in the 18th century, with its various arms remaining secretive today, for fairly obvious reasons.

Estimated number of members: 200,000+

The Latin Kings

The Latin Kings (or, to give them their full title, The Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation) are a multi-faceted Latino and Hispanic conglomerate of various affiliated street and prison gangs. They operate across North, Central and South America, with ‘chapters’ almost like a motorcycle outfit. Or, in non-criminal terms, almost like a franchise business.

Favouring a black and gold colour scheme, The Latin Kings’ numbers are vast, outnumbering any other rival street gangs. They originated in the Chicago of the 1950s, a direct response to the increasingly aggressive Greek and Italian immigrant gangs which were squeezing Latinos out of the city.

Unusually for an organisation of this kind, The Latin Kings have no problem accepting and working alongside female members, with The Queen Nation now a thriving part of the wider criminal network.

Estimated number of members: 50,000+

The Yakuza

Few people are unaware of Japan’s contribution to transnational crime syndicates. This spider’s web of organised crime groups are known internationally as ‘Yakuza’, they call themselves ‘ninkyō dantai’ (‘chivalrous organisation’). Though, in truth, there’s very little chivalry about them.

Known for their natty suits, copious tattoos and slicked-back hairstyles, members abide by strict rules and hierarchies and observe centuries-old rituals. They’re expected to abandon their friends and families on entry and consider their boss as their one superior and their fellow members as their family.

As with many of the other criminal networks on this list, the Yakuza isn’t just one large group, it’s made up of a series of syndicates. The three main ‘families’ are the ‘Yamaguchi-gumi’, the ‘Sumiyoshi-Kai’ and the ‘Inagawa-Kai’.

Estimated number of members: 30,000+

Cosa Nostra

The original Mafia, the Cosa Nostra (meaning ‘Our Thing’) doesn’t boast quite the numbers, reach, power or earning potential that it once did. But make no mistake, the Sicilian mob is still very much a global force to be reckoned with.

Families or ‘clans’ are assigned territories and all work to the same organisational structure, with a boss, an underboss and a consigliere (‘counsellor’) overseeing ‘foot soldiers’. Under, or alongside the soldiers are various ‘associates’. Each boss reports into the ‘capo di tutti capi’ (‘boss of bosses’). This same set-up applies in countries where the Cosa Nostra have set up shop, like - famously - the US.

Mafiosi have always claimed to be ‘men of honour’ who follow a very strict code of conduct forbidding various frowned-upon crimes (kidnapping, mugging, etc.). They also swear not to inform on one another (the rule of ‘omerta’), sleep with another member’s wife or fraternise with police and must always respect their wives, keep to appointment times with superiors and never argue with, harm or kill another ‘man of honour’. Of course, none of these rules are ever stuck to because, well… Criminals aren’t exactly the most law-abiding of folk, are they?

Estimated number of members: 25,000+


While its spiritual cousins from Sicily get the big-screen attention and cache, the entirely lower profile Calarian mob quietly go about their business on a similar scale. Extortion, human trafficking, arms dealing, corrupt public contracts and money laundering earn these traditional rural gangsters billions of Euros each year. But it’s narcotics where they make their real coin. In fact, the ‘Ndrangheta is estimated to see annual profits higher than Deutsche Bank and McDonald's combined.

‘Locales’ are overseen by a ‘cosche’ or family. Some 100 cosches combine to make up the wider network. As with the Cosa Nostra, the hierarchy is rigidly pyramidical. This goes for the individual families and how the families lie in the wider context of the organisation.

Estimated number of members: 20,000+